In Virginia, voter ID coverage disappoints

Reporting on Tuesday's voter ID bills fed into--rather than clarified--the partisan debate

COLUMBIA, SC — In the run-up to the November presidential elections, skirmishes over voter ID requirements, among other voting rules, bubbled up in several swing states—including Colorado, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia—as well as in the federal courts.

This week, news out of Virginia confirmed those fights aren’t likely to fade. And neither will the need for clarifying coverage, for reporting that steers clear of the he-said, she-said pitfall, for reporters who avoid attributing something that can be stated as fact. More on that—and how some Virginia reporters fared Tuesday—to come.

While Virginia does not have a government-issued photo ID law, the state’s General Assembly on Tuesday passed companion bills that would reduce the number of documents voters can provide in order to cast a ballot there. The Republican-controlled House of Delegates passed the bill 63-36; the evenly-split Senate, however, required Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s tie-breaking vote. Bolling also voted for a Democratic amendment requiring a voter education component and delaying the bills’ implementation until 2014.

So what would this legislation restrict if signed into law?

From Tuesday’s Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star:

It removes utility bills, paychecks, bank statements and Social Security cards as acceptable forms of ID to vote.

The bill would, however, allow concealed weapons permits.

Free-Lance Star government reporter Chelyen Davis asked the House bill’s sponsor, Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, why he came up with the new restrictions.

“Those are very weak forms of ID and not generally accepted as ID in other transactions,” Cole said on Monday.

He said he filed the bill specifically after video surfaced of Rep. Jim Moran’s son discussing with a purported campaign worker ways in which that worker might encourage fraudulent voting using fake utility bills.

“So I thought it was appropriate to tighten up the list to more acceptable forms of ID,” Cole said.

The Free-Lance Star’s Davis pointed out for readers why Democrats have problems with the bill and feel it makes the voter ID requirements passed in the state last year even worse. (By way of background: last year Virginia passed a voter ID law that did not require a picture ID, but did mandate other forms of identification in order to cast a regular ballot. The Department of Justice upheld the law last summer. The proposed new restrictions would further limit those forms of ID.) From Davis’s piece:

“There are people, mostly elderly, many of them but not all poor, who do not have any of these IDs that will be left, because they don’t drive anymore because they don’t have a valid driver’s license, they don’t have a concealed weapons permit,” said Del. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. “All they have is the voter registration card sent by the state.”

As The American Prospect’s Jamelle Bouie wrote:

Put simply, voting has just become more difficult for those Virginians who don’t have driver’s licenses, don’t own concealed weapons, and aren’t students. If your priority is voter integrity―i.e., preventing voter fraud―it’s hard to understand the reason for this change. Social Security cards, pay stubs, utility bills, bank statements, and government checks are hard to fake, and are accepted standards for identification for other government functions.

Bouie also correctly noted that the Virginia DMV lists Social Security cards as one of many acceptable documents for proof of legal US residency, which contradicts the bill sponsor’s statement about them not being generally accepted IDs in other transactions (information that unfortunately did not make it into the Free-Lance Star, which included the sponsor’s statement in its story).

Prior to the November presidential election, media coverage of the voter ID debate became the poster child for a critique of false balance. It followed a dustup at The New York Times, in which the paper’s public editor responded to critics about a voter ID story they argued gave equal balance to both sides of the debate. In so doing, critics argued, the paper wrongly suggested that the amount of in-person voter fraud happening in the United Sates was enough to justify voter ID laws. (In fact, evidence of in-person voter fraud is incredibly rare in the United States.)

In Virginia, this is a critique the liberal Media Matters for America recently raised in reference to in-state newspaper coverage of the issue, noting that some Virginia papers weren’t explaining for their readers the extreme rarity of in-person voter fraud as an objective reality.

This shortcoming was on display yesterday at WJLA, Washington, DC’s only 24/7 local cable news station, which reported “supporters say the legislation allows for greater integrity within the electorate while cracking down on voter fraud,” but didn’t mention the rarity of actual in-person voter fraud.

And at the Richmond Times-Dispatch yesterday, a partisan source was left to state that fact.

“We do not have any evidence of a lot of people showing up at the polls, pretending to be someone else,” the paper quoted Richmond Del. Jennifer L. McClellan saying.

Reporters would do better to quote credible, independent voices on this point (election law expert Rick Hasen, for example)—or supply the facts in their own voices—rather than feed into the he-said-she-said partisan quagmire the voter ID debate has become.

Unfortunately, the Times-Dispatch did more of said feeding in this paragraph from Tuesday’s story:

Del. Delores L. McQuinn, D-Richmond, said Republicans are trying to create obstacles to make voting more difficult. “This legislative session, House Republicans have defeated every single measure to make voting more accessible for qualified Virginia voters,” McQuinn said. “[They] have blocked legislation to institute an early voting period, expand No-Excuse Absentee voting, extend voting hours and a host of other bills to improve access to the ballot box,” she said.

Well, have they? This is important context that readers should be told as a matter of fact, not partisan attribution. And this holds true for coverage of voter ID battles or any other legislative fight.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at